A Small Word With Large Effects

AHS students open up about cancer and how it has affected their personal lives.
Kyra Rink, Alyssa Neal, and Neals family geared up for the football Pink Out game. Neals mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kyra Rink, Alyssa Neal, and Neal’s family geared up for the football Pink Out game. Neal’s mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kyra Rink
The Word

Cancer. A small word that carries a heavy weight. AHS students and families have been weighed down by the burden of cancer, and yet they have also been uplifted by positive support. 

A few weeks ago I would’ve said cancer is an unfortunate illness that affects many people around me. However, if you asked me today, my response would be entirely different. Now, I’d say it’s an unfortunate illness that affects me. It’s a life-changing diagnosis, and I’d do anything to take it away from those suffering from it, anything to take it away from my mom. 

The word “cancer” has always been in our ears. We donate to fundraisers, attend pink-out games, and wear an array of different colored ribbons. But we rarely sit down to talk about the weight of this word.

Eighty-eight percent of AHS students and faculty responding to a survey said they know someone who had cancer, and 42.9 percent know someone who is currently fighting a cancer battle. So why don’t we talk about it? As a student body, we might not realize just how many of our closest friends have been dealing with it. Although cancer can be a sensitive subject, many of the people we walk past in the halls every day are on the same rollercoaster of emotions as we are, so we should take some time to ride it out together.

It may be difficult to start the conversation. Some may hesitatie to talk about a person they’ve lost, or a person they love deeply and haven’t wanted to accept the diagnosis; and for others, it’s just a hard subject that gets easier over time.

“At first, it was tough to talk about since we kept it quiet. The more that I talk about it though, the easier it gets,” said senior Bennett Whetstone, whose mom recently beat breast cancer a couple of months ago. “She’s doing amazing right now, but it was such a jarring experience in the beginning because no one in our family had had cancer before, and it just suddenly showed up. We panicked because we didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen.”

Claire Schroder wears a ribbon on her volleyball shoe to honor her dad’s friend that died from pancreatic cancer. Many people wear small clothing items to show their support daily. (Claire Schroder)
The Unknowns

Cancer brings a lot of uncertainty. Many students and teachers here at AHS, and all over the world, are trying to fight, or have fought this type of battle. When my mom was diagnosed, I reacted the same way as I had never experienced this before. It was all new to me and I had no idea what was going to happen or even what to expect. I knew I had to trust God and trust that everything would work out the way he wanted it to. 

Vincent Meisinger, a freshman, also experienced this uncertainty as he lost his grandpa to cancer. “First, he lost his hair from treatment, then his appetite, and next thing we knew, he had to stay home.” Cancer gives and takes, and for Meisinger, it left a hole in his life. “His cancer made life so different because I lived with them for a while. It was a big change,” for more than just his grandpa. Cancer has a way of taking your “normal” and blowing it away to never be seen again, as if it was never that way in the first place. Meisinger lost his “normal” at the young age of eleven. “Our family dynamic changed. My family doesn’t go to my grandparents’ house much anymore, and we don’t spend nearly as much time together.” 

Sophie Johnson, a sophomore, also went through something similar. Johnson’s great-grandfather passed away from multiple types of cancer, after fighting his battle three different times. “He became very sick, to the point where doing things on his own was no longer an option. We had to take care of him.” Adapting to these kinds of changes can be another storm on top of cancer itself. For Johnson, the adjustment wasn’t easy. “School was rough on its own, and trying to believe that this had happened made it so much harder because I didn’t want to believe it.” Johnson would spend her evenings after school going to see and talk to him. “It felt like I was losing one of my best friends.”

The Burden

Cancer affects so much more than most people realize. From emotions to physical well-being, cancer has no remorse for happiness, and in fact, loves to take it away. Whestone said, “I got very lost and confused in my feelings, I’ve never really dealt with something as horrible and evil as cancer.”

Johnson felt a heavy burden from her great-grandpa’s cancer as well. “He meant so much to a lot of different people in my family. He made such an impact in what he did and what he said. It affected my mental health because there was so much I had to step up and do.” It’s times like these when we need our community the most. “It had a huge effect on my mom as she was very close with him. It’s hard to believe it. Sometimes the hardest part is being strong for your family.” That’s not all, though, as cancer can create financial burdens and create a heavy weight on a family’s shoulders. 

Senior Wyatt Simons, whose mom recently beat breast cancer for the second time, said it “affected a lot of our time. Every couple of weeks my mom would have to drive to Omaha for specialized doctor appointments. This resulted in a lot of time off work, creating a financial struggle.”

This type of burden is common, as Whetstone’s family experienced the same stress. “Breast cancer, or any type of cancer, is a very expensive thing to deal with. It brings a new burden on top of the cancer itself, a big financial hardship. It was intimidating to deal with such a new issue. My mom was gone a lot and she was the one who always did the laundry and made supper, and that was put onto us. It brought us all closer together because we realized just how important these small things are.” 

Johnson said, “Financially, medical bills were a struggle, but we had many donations made for his funeral. That was definitely a blessing from God to be able to pay it all off with the help of people’s kindness.”

The Emotions
Xander Cook shows off his shirt in support of his grandpa. The company he worked at had made shirts for his cause. (Xander Cook)

When a wave of emotion like this comes over you and your family, you start to really see the value that each person has in your life. Driving an hour each way back and forth for weeks can be absolutely exhausting, both timely and financially. Although sometimes, cancer has a way of bringing some good, too.

Sophomore Addie Freund lost her grandpa in March of 2021 after he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2020. “It was a side effect of the Agent Orange chemical he breathed in Vietnam.” Freund went through many emotions during her grandpa’s fight. “This really affected me negatively because I was super close to my grandpa and was sick the day he passed away, so I wasn’t able to go with my mom to visit him. The day he passed away we were actually supposed to be leaving for a flight to Florida for spring break, but I got sick and that kept us home. It felt like it was God’s work keeping us home so my mom could say goodbye to him one last time.” Although Freund said it changed a lot of her family members after his passing and caused tears from which she’d rarely ever seen cry, it brought her family together. Freund’s aunt is in remission from her stage four Melanoma, which she was diagnosed with in 2020. “This summer we heard she was in remission and our whole family went to Okoboji to celebrate. It was amazing. I remember dancing with my family as we celebrated with a bunch of strangers. It’s just so weird because there is such a horrible side to cancer, but the togetherness and love that you see and feel when everyone comes together is amazing,” said Freund. “In a way, cancer could be a blessing or a curse. It could bring together the most distant family members and take away someone you love. It isn’t very hard for me to talk about anymore because it is a part of his life and mine, and I know that it was God’s work.”

Sophomore Dasia Baxter experienced a brief moment of worry when her grandma was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, they caught it early and she has been cleared. “It scared me because I know what cancer can do to a person,” but in the end, it all turned out alright. “It didn’t really even affect me since they caught it so early on.” 

Nevaeh Fewson, a sophomore, lost her grandpa last April to cancer. Unfortunately, not all cancer ends the way we want it to. “He had cancer a couple of years ago, but it was taken care of. However, he was diagnosed again so they decided to do a biopsy. There were complications when he was in the biopsy and he passed away that day.” Fewson immediately felt the effects after he was diagnosed the second time. “Every time I saw him I could tell it was getting worse. It’s hard to see someone you love go through something like that.” Fewson said that it has definitely not been an easy adjustment, “but it was for the better that he’s not suffering anymore.”

The Support

In times like these, we feel alone. However, in the first few weeks, I’ve come to realize just how much support my family and I have, as well as how many other people understand my exact feelings. This year, AHS has been all about commUNITY, and I’ve definitely seen it in recent weeks. Sometimes, there’s a ray of sunshine in our darkest moments.

Anna Pauley, the chemistry teacher here at AHS, also had a ray of sunshine come through during the storm. Aside from her uncle, who unfortunately passed away due to cancer, two of her aunts and her dad have all completed treatments successfully. At the time, the doctor gave the family a gas card to help lighten the weight on their shoulders, which was “a blessing with the cost of travel,” said Pauley. As time passed, it did “add worry and stress, but slowly became part of our reality, and eventually, it was normal.” 

Cancer gives and takes, and it’s up to you in how you respond. “You can’t let cancer beat you. You have to fight it,” said Whetstone. “You’ve got to find a reason to keep going.”

Johnson has seen the outcome of having people by your side in times when you need it the most. “If anybody else is going through this, know that something good can somehow come out of it. You have to look on the bright side and keep your head up. It’s important to talk about it with those around you who care, and are going through something similar, or even the same exact thing.”

Cancer is a battle, but one that you don’t have to go through alone. Chances are, one of your friends has experienced this in one way or another. Even when you don’t expect it, someone will understand. I’ve learned that it’s okay to share our stories, as they help one another to heal, and grow, together. It might be tough to fully understand, or even try to comprehend, but there are people who will support you. Cancer may be a battle, but it’s one we can fight together.

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